Interview

Nine years on: Social casino specialist KamaGames on the evolution of Pokerist

Nine years on: Social casino specialist KamaGames on the evolution of Pokerist

It is often said that nothing is truly finished and it’s a saying the games industry has taken to heart in recent times.

Long gone are the days of developing and publishing a game without the need to tweak, adjust and patch it after launch, with new titles requiring constant operation and updates to keep them at the forefront of consumer thought.

Here at PocketGamer.biz we want to take the opportunity to highlight games that have bucked the trend and found an audience that has kept them thriving long after launch.

In this entry of our Live and Kicking series, we caught up with KamaGames CEO Andrey Kuznetsov following the nine-year anniversary of Pokerist.

PocketGamer.biz: With Pokerist now nine years old, how do you reflect on its performance - from launch to the mature title it is now?

Andrey Kuznetsov: Whilst we always hoped it would be a hit with players, we never could have predicted that Pokerist would grow to become the success that it is today.

In the nine years since its launch, Pokerist has grown from a single title with simple, straightforward gameplay to unquestionably one of the most diverse social mobile poker apps in the world. This has led to Pokerist being localised into 28 languages and played competitively across no less than an impressive total of 233 countries.

In the beginning, we offered a strong, solid poker game in which players, both experienced and new, could engage with and enjoy. Since then we’ve built on that solid foundation, growing as a mobile game and a company as a whole.

We continue to meet impressive targets and achieve new milestones each year with the same determination that was present within KamaGames nine years ago when Pokerist was launched.

How big is the team currently handling live ops on Pokerist?

Currently, KamaGames has a staff of over 250 highly-skilled employees, spread across our various offices. We are proudly headquartered in Dublin, Ireland along with office locations in China, London and our studios in Eastern Europe. Plans are also underway to enter a number of other regions in the future.

How important do you consider customer support and updates to be? What has been your approach to this?

We see customer support and regular updates to Pokerist as a significant part of providing the best possible gaming experience to our players. It cannot be undervalued in the slightest.

We try to ensure wherever possible that players can access any support they need via our 24/7 multilingual support team, to rectify any in-game issues they might be encountering.

In regards to updates, in the first half of 2019 alone, KamaGames made a number of significant expansions and updates to Pokerist, including making it available on Facebook Games.

Developed on the Unity engine and using WebGL technology, we not only made our two headline titles, Pokerist and Blackjackist, available, but we also expanded this availability to other popular titles, including Roulettist, Slots, Omaha Poker, Baccarat, Craps and Teen Patti.

As a company, we are confident that Facebook Games can be a good opportunity for Pokerist and intend to continue to develop on this platform.

Within the last year we also entered into an exclusive partnership with Unity Ads which allowed us to exclusively provide in-app rewarded video advertising via the Unity Ads platform across our entire portfolio of games.

As a company, we are confident that Facebook Games can be a good opportunity for Pokerist and intend to continue to develop on this platform.
Andrey Kuznetsov

Rewarded video ads give our players more opportunities to play our games for free and so are of course quite popular. The decision to enter into the partnership was based on the platform’s already impressive metrics and the overall quality of the provided content.

In addition, it also allowed us to reduce the actual app “weight” in the App Store as Unity offers simple integration.

What steps have you taken to ensure that Pokerist maintains a sizable and active player base all this time after its launch?

There has definitely been an ongoing increase in Pokerist’s overall quality, look, feel and design over the years. This ranges from everything from the user interface to the gameplay, the graphics and the wider socialisation in the game too.

When it comes to the actual game of Pokerist itself, one way we have maintained and indeed grown Pokerist’s active player base throughout the years is through the interesting gaming mechanics we have introduced to the app including popular real-world gaming mechanics such as multi-table tournaments (MTTs).

KamaGames was the first social casino operator to introduce MTTs to the social casino landscape and as a result, have seen an increase in the number of players engaging with the app on a daily basis.

When we looked at how our standard MTTs boosted our player engagement and retention numbers throughout 2018, we decided to expand this offering to include Omaha MTTs and Party Mode MTTs in our Pokerist portfolio. These two inventive new tournaments available in the Pokerist app, combine the successful gaming mechanics of MTTs and Party modes, and also MTTs with Omaha Poker.

Each of these key individual elements have already been a hit with players on their own and so by combining them, KamaGames aims to make these tournaments even more intricate and exciting.

These are just one example of the innovations that players have come to expect from Pokerist and are largely responsible for us maintaining and growing our active player base.

Other key factors in our growth have been aggressive marketing and extensive user acquisition in particular between 2010 to 2012 where the cost per install (CPI) was low and the quality of traffic was incredibly high. This led to our first really strong year of growth, the first of many. This was also a key factor in the increase in localisation of Pokerist which currently stands at 28 languages.

Finally, we should mention our various B2B partnerships which have played a key part in growing and maintaining our audience. To date our partnerships included those with Manchester United, Poker Night in America, Viber, Tango, YooZoo, FaceBook Games, Apple TV, VK.com, Spil Games, and Samsung.

We have a number of other high profile partnerships set to be announced later this year which will give Pokerist another significant boost which is very exciting for us as a company.

To what do you attribute Pokerist consistently impressive grossing performance, and how do you sustain it?

Innovation is at the core of every project we work on and every new game we release on Pokerist.

It’s something the drives KamaGames as a company and is certainly what we attribute our success to. We are constantly asking ourselves what do our players need and questioning what is the most effective and interesting way to give it to them.

We did this when we introduced games like Split Bet and Set Poker to Pokerist where we wanted to create a more intense challenge for experienced players who may have become too comfortable with the traditional Texas Hold’Em model of poker.

Players stay with us long-term because they know that there will always be something new and different to come back to.
Andrey Kuznetsov

The same innovation was applied when we launched our Party modes, targeted at players who want a variety of fun and quick games that result in interesting hand combinations.

It’s the fact that these new games, features and original gaming mechanics are launched on a regular basis that contributes heavily to the success of Pokerist. Players stay with us long-term because they know that there will always be something new and different to come back to.

Any KPIs such as downloads, DAU or retention you’re willing to share?

The number of DAUs of KamaGames’ titles saw strong growth of 23.5 per cent from 510k in 2017 to 630k in 2018. We’re thrilled to see such significant growth in this area and we will continue to build on these figures throughout 2019.

Retention and playing session times for Pokerist are also rising due to special event cycles, new mechanics and new games being introduced regularly to engage our players on a daily basis. This growth also helped us reach the 120 million player milestone last year, an achievement we’re very proud of.

What lessons have you learned/are you still learning from Pokerist? Is there anything about the game that, in hindsight, you'd now handle differently?

Key learnings over the years would definitely include that poker is absolutely an evergreen game with a very long "monetisation tail". I would even say the game also allows for "unlimited monetisation" without ruining game economics, as has been the case in a number of other games on the market.

Also, due to the uniqueness of the game of poker, it is almost impossible to introduce something new to the main, classic game out there - Texas Holdem. This is due in the most part to the market being quite closed and the number of companies offering this type of game is small, and what's more that number is declining.

Only a very small handful of companies, including KamaGames, are getting stronger and experiencing solid growth whereas the others are dying as they are simply unable to compete in the market. What this ultimately means is there really is no possibility for newcomers to successfully take any market share.

I don’t know if there is anything we necessarily would have handled differently because, even with campaigns or promotions where things didn’t go as well as we would have liked, we learned a great deal about our players and what they want from us.

The information gleaned from these experiences constantly inform our future decisions and are a large factor in our overriding success in the social casino landscape.

A great example of this is when we carried out the KamaGames Token Sale last year, in an effort to test the waters of blockchain and introduce players to a new form of promotional event in social casino.

Specifically, we set out to allow players to purchase tokens they could exchange for our in game currency at the best rate possible and also rewarded them for holding onto them too.

The longer a player held onto their tokens, the higher the value of the tokens when they eventually cashed them in. The token to in-game virtual chip rate would grow by 25 per cent every month and holders would also receive additional daily bonuses for the first six months.

Even with campaigns or promotions where things didn’t go as well as we would have liked, we learned a great deal about our players and what they want from us.
Andrey Kuznetsov

There was a lot of excitement around this offering and the blockchain community as a whole last year and we definitely learned a lot as a company. Most importantly, we learned that this type of offering is not for us or our players for a number of reasons.

However, we do not regret carrying out the KamaGames Token sale because it’s exactly this type of forward-thinking and bold move that makes us different and this difference draws players to Pokerist on a regular basis.

How has the social casino space changed over the last nine years and how have you kept up with these trends and competitors with Pokerist?

The market has definitely changed over the years. It has matured significantly which has meant there is a very limited number of companies due to the limited number of players out there.

We are all competing for the same player’s mind share. This is exacerbated by the fact that the market is not growing as fast as it used to and therefore there has also been a lot of consolidation with M&As, etcetera.

We have also seen a massive increase in the costs of CPI/UA over the last few years which means that only the really well-monetised products can afford it. The product quality benchmark is constantly being raised significantly too, along with more and more social features and content being added on a regular basis to keep players engaged.

We have seen a number of trends sweep over the social casino and gaming industry over the last nine years. Mobile technology has advanced and internet speeds have increased significantly, which has been highly beneficial to the gaming industry as a whole.

Along with this advancement has come a call for greater socialisation opportunities within games, more variety of entertainment and more detailed, lifelike graphics.

We understand the importance of socialisation in a game like ours and we focus a lot of our time on continuously improving in this area. At the moment our players can not only interact via chat options, but they can also send each other a variety of gifts throughout their game.

These range from anything as simple as sending another player a drink or in a game like Craps, players can even transfer dice throws to one another. This can result in some truly interesting and entertaining interactions between the Pokerist community and we’re proud to say that currently, there have been approximately 8.3 billion messages sent among players via the Pokerist app.

While we may not be the biggest social casino operator in the world, Pokerist certainly has the most diverse offering available to social casino players. This has been a significant factor in staying ahead of our much larger competitors and being able to compete in the social mobile poker space with the likes of Zynga and Playtika.

Finally, how has your experience with Pokerist informed where you are/what you're working on now?

From our experience with Pokerist, we now understand how personalisation will become the next big step for the gaming industry.

From our experience with Pokerist, we now understand how personalisation will become the next big step for the gaming industry.
Andrey Kuznetsov

This has recently resulted in the latest innovation in Pokerist, the release of personalised avatars, which launched in June 2019. Players are able to select gender, hairstyle, hair colour, eye colour and skin tone and therefore are able to create their own, unique avatar that will represent them at any of our tables.

Once an avatar is designed, the player can also cloth them with an assortment of garments and accessories ranging from a slick jacket and top hat combination to a leather biker jacket and a collection of tattoos.

Players looking to refresh their avatar quickly and easily can access a vast collection of pre-installed looks developed to the highest standard of detail. This unique avatar constructor can only be found in the Pokerist app.

When looking a little bit further to the future, one of our key objectives is that KamaGames remains at the forefront of innovation in the social casino genre and we already have a lot of exciting plans in place for the rest of 2019 and beyond.

Whilst we cannot go into any specific details at this point, our players can look forward to a host of new games coming to the app, partnerships with several, well known global brands and our audience to grow into a number of new and emerging markets.

There are some exciting times ahead for sure.

Learn more about live ops on the Live Ops Landscape track at Pocket Gamer Connects Hong Kong on July 17th and 18th.

Senior Editor

Craig Chapple is Senior Editor of PocketGamer.biz and InfluencerUpdate.biz. He was previously Deputy Editor at Develop and Online Editor at Nintendo of Europe.

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